Tradition and transformation in 19th century bookbinding

The 19th century was a time of great change in European bookbinding. Social and educational reform of the previous century had led to increased levels of literacy which in turn resulted in a greater demand for books from a much wider public. The book industry responded to this demand by seeking cheaper and quicker methods of production and distribution so that books could be produced in larger quantities and at more affordable prices. However, this need for speed did not eradicate traditional skills completely and it certainly didn’t dampen the desire to create beautiful books.

Voyages de Gulliver dans les Contrées Lointaines / Jonathan Swift. Museum no. Circ.186-1948.

Voyages de Gulliver dans les Contrées Lointaines / Jonathan Swift. Published in Paris, 1855. Museum no. Circ-186-1948. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Vellum and leather had been the traditional binding materials for centuries and they continued to be used throughout the 1900s but animal skins were costly and stocks were limited. In order to meet the demand for commercial books there was a need for a covering that was cheaper, more widely available and quick to produce. One solution was cloth and the cover on this French edition of Jonathan Swift’s celebrated novel Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates just how suitable it was. On the front of the book Gulliver is shown towering over the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput in a scene framed by trees and multi-coloured flowers. After being stiffened with starch, cloth was capable of taking gold tooling and coloured stamps similar to those used on leather covers and so cheaper binding materials didn’t necessarily mean that decoration had to be compromised.

Les Fleurs Animées / J. J. Grandville. Published in Paris, 1857. Museum no. L.755-1943

Les Fleurs Animées / J. J. Grandville. Published in Paris, 1857. Museum no. L.755-1943. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The National Art Library has many examples of these decorated cloth covers, another being a copy of Les Fleurs Animées which contains humorous hand-coloured engravings by the eminent French caricaturist and illustrator J.J. Grandville.

The study of plants and flowers was a popular Victorian pastime which was spurred on by the rise of leisure reading, especially among women. The cover and the prints inside this book show flowers personified as women and dressed in elegant, and often extravagant, costumes. Although the text includes detailed descriptions of the flowers when in bloom, the cover and Grandville’s humorous engravings make clear that this book is designed for pleasure rather than for academic study.

Les Fleurs Animées / J. J. Grandville. Published in Paris, 1857. Museum no. L.755-1943. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Cloth covers were one solution to reducing expenditure but publishers recognised that they could cut production costs further by producing their own bindings instead of paying a bookbinder to do it. This pair of French history books demonstrate the emergence of what became known as ‘trade’ bindings in the 19th century since their decorated cardboard covers were designed by the publisher rather than by a bookbinder:

Petite bibliothéque des chroniques de l'histoire de France (Vol.1) / Adolphe Mazure. Published in Paris, 1842. Museum no. L.3639-1972

Petite bibliothéque des chroniques de l’histoire de France (Vol.1) / Adolphe Mazure. Published in Paris, 1842. Museum no. L.3639-1972. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Petite bibliothéque des chroniques de l'histoire de France (Vol.2) / Adolphe Mazure. Published in Paris, 1842. Museum no. L.3640-1972

Petite bibliothéque des chroniques de l’histoire de France (Vol.2) / Adolphe Mazure. Published in Paris, 1842. Museum no. L.3640-1972. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries also had an effect on book production and this is apparent in the structure of these books: the pages have been prepared using machinery and are glued together instead of being sewn by hand.

In the mid-19th century there was a trend for giving books with decorative bindings as gifts and the demand for novelty in these bindings often resulted in unusual combinations of materials and techniques. For example, the parrot on the central panel of this book’s cover has been stitched in wool onto linen and inserted into the leather binding to create a striking and colourful mix of media.

Ruled music stave book with musical examples. Florence, ca 1850s.

Ruled music stave book with musical examples. Florence, ca 1850s. Museum no. MSL/1981/13. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Gift books often contained poetry but this one is filled with leaves of music manuscript paper and on the first few pages the owner has transcribed songs and short pieces for piano.

Ruled music stave book with musical examples. Florence, ca 1850s. Museum no. MSL/1981/13.

Ruled music stave book with musical examples. Florence, ca 1850s. Museum no. MSL/1981/13. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Despite all the changes taking place in the industry, traditional bookbinding methods did not cease. In the 1840s the French bookbinding firm Gruel were commissioned by the printers Engelmann and Graf to provide a range of covers for a facsimile of illuminated manuscripts. The bindings were to be in different styles and at varying price levels. This example, bearing a bold strapwork design of interweaving leather inlays and beautiful dark-blue endpapers decorated with gold stars, is one of three copies in the National Art Library, each with a different binding.

Livre d'heures d'après les manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale. Published in Paris, 1846. Museum no. 2668-1856.

Livre d’heures d’après les manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale. Published in Paris, 1846. Museum no. 2668-1856. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Livre d'heures d'après les manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale. Published in Paris, 1846. Museum no. 2668-1856.

Livre d’heures d’après les manuscrits de la Bibliothèque royale. Published in Paris, 1846. Museum no. 2668-1856. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A few decades after this binding was produced a later member of the firm, Léon Gruel (1841-1923), wrote his Manuel Historique et Bibliographique de L’Amateur de Reliures (published 1887-1905). In it he gave examples of historic fine bindings but he also called on his contemporaries to demonstrate greater innovation in bookbinding design. So throughout the century – although new materials, techniques and audiences had transformed the book industry – firms such as Gruel were maintaining traditional skills while at the same time adapting their craft for a changing market.

All of the books featured here, and others, are now on display at the V&A in the exhibition Europe and America: 1815-1900, Gallery 101.

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